TeacherMrLoria's Reviews > Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
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Apr 28, 12

Read in April, 2012

Well, it certainly isn’t the feel good hit of the summer, but this a play that is a must read, so relevant in our “consumer driven” pursuit of happiness. Two main things stand out, what you chose to dedicate your life to and what you think of self. More about that soon, but I want to mention that I first read this play in high school and while I remember liking it, I don’t think I was able to appreciate it nearly as much as I was this time through. This is one of those life experience stories. Hemmingway for example, doesn’t really make sense until you fall into and out of love. Until that life experience happens, don’t bother reading Hemmingway because you just won’t “get it.”
This play fits into that category. It should be read by people who are frustrated with their jobs. With people who are in a profession for several years and then start wondering “is this really what I want to do with my life?” This play is for people who are dedicated and yet wonder in the back of their minds then they see a grey haired coworker “do I want to end up like this guy?” This play is for people who are able to buy things and always feel like they are just on the verge of being “complete,” whether that be though a final mortgage payment, a down payment on that dream home, the next electronic toy on their wish list, whatever it may be and yet once that item is purchased the next gets added to the list. If you haven’t had this frustration yet, you might be able to read this play and appreciate it on a level, but not completely. So don’t read this in high school, read it once you’ve lived in the professional world long enough to be frustrated and wonder “is this what I should be doing with my life?”
The play was written in 1949, a time where story telling was much more direct and characters represented clearly a certain way of life (as opposed to developing or being conflicted throughout the story etc). Think It’s a Wonderful Life. Direct narrative, pretty concise and clear moral. I found a few things primarily interesting, what characters choose to dedicate themselves to and their view of self.
Recently I’ve been turning over a question in my head and the question is this – what can a person commit to? I believe it was Kierkegard who said something to the effect of we give our lives meaning by passionately committing to life. Beautiful! So I wonder, OK, well what can you commit yourself to? As a side note, I think most people don’t commit to anything really and live pretty shitty lives. This is why they complain throughout life and yet cling desperately at the end. They realize it’s been a waste, but of course, a bit too late. But if you are the kind of person who lives a well examined life and does in fact commit I’ve come up with a couple basic areas.
The first and most common is material possession. We see this all around, that’s the common one. Frankly it’s life’s easiest answer to that question, how to achieve happiness. aHA, I’ll buy things. Happy is this, Howard for sure is. If one chooses to commit to accumulating material possession you can have many things but on the inside you will be fundamentally unhappy. When presented with an opportunity you say “I’ll do that, but not quite yet, let me just buy this last thing / achieve this position and then I’ll be free to join you.” The problem is, that someday never comes. This might be our culture’s version of the manana syndrome described by Keroauc in On the Road (see my On the Road review or just ask and I’ll rant away, to sum it up briefly to put things off until “manana” doesn’t work because manana never comes). I think of Thoreau saying how society has improved houses but not the people that occupy them. I think of Fight Club “we get jobs we hate to buy shit we don’t need.” It’s the most common way to live life but ultimately empty.
A second way of life is dedication to an ideology. My roommate for example is getting a phd in sustainability which is basically the art of lecturing other people about what they shouldn’t be doing. I think too of religious people I grew up with, or politicians who are dedicated to an ideology. A classic choosing an ideology lifestyle would be a lifelong Marine. Another ideology the life of a salesman, check out the title, it’s not Death of Willie Lomac, it’s Death of a Salesman. This can provide some sense of fulfillment. I think the only one who is committed to this way of life completely is Biff who is committed to the difficult art of self-discovery. He is your classic questioner, wanderer, looking for fulfillment in his work and simultaneous self-discovery. Willie is partly committed to the ideology of being a salesman and embodying that code of principles.
The third way of a life of passionate commitment that I can think of would be to commit to others most often typified by the family man. My father, though in the world of business is ultimately committed to his family. The happiest men I know vary in terms of material worth but one of the consistent features I see in them is they are committed to their families. Skynyrd “have you ever seen a she gator, protect her youngin’s?” Humans are like this. If you commit to your family or others, I feel this is the closest you can get to fulfillment in life. Willie is stuck somewhere between this way of life, a commitment to ideology and the accumulation of possessions. He’s got one foot in each door but never one totally in any door. This is important, you can commit to others ONLY IF you are living a consistent life of honesty.
This is Willie’s downfall. What he present himself as versus what he is in character are two fundamentally different things. This is showcased early and often, one minute he’ll be praising Chevrolet in front of a crowd, the next cursing it privately. However it is his married life and fidelity is where this contradiction becomes the most obvious. At one point he is confronted by his son who tells him “I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like the rest of them!”
This self-delusion determines so much about him. Willie talks about how he knows people (not true) how his funeral they will come from all around (not true)how he just wants to grow something in the backyard (not possible) how he is about to be free with his final mortgage payment (true but with an asterix). Ultimately Willie doesn’t know himself. He talks about how “some people accomplish something” and usually means that in regards to material worth or striking business gold so to speak. Yet, perhaps the greatest accomplishment is to know and understand yourself. I will repeat that, man’s greatest accomplishment is to know and understand self (and then subsequently love others, though I view self-knowledge as a prerequisite to love of others). I think at its heart this is a know thyself play. Willie doesn’t know or understand himself. He’s mending stockings while talking about buying the neighborhood. He kind of commits to several ways of life, but doesn’t commit totally to any of them. It’s simply a life of self-delusion.
Willie is a pathetic figure. At the end of the play you simply pity his life. It’s a sad way to live and end. This play is tragic but more pathetic than anything else. Pathos is one of the “evil” loves by the way. You’re pitying another person and viewing yourself as superior to them. It’s not sincere but then again, neither is this kind of life as a salesman. A well lived life is possible in modern society, but one needs to first examine and know self and then commit fully to a way of life to make it happen.
I should mention that Willie is struggling with mental illness. Dementia of some sort perhaps, frequent hallucinations. In those days, mental health wasn’t the finest in care. That’s an issue, but not the main one frankly. Perhaps more of a side effect of a life of self-delusion. Not the cause of his soul’s unrest, which is why I didn’t try to focus on it too much during this review. I can see how the post modernists, the ones who invent excuses and speak of a convulsion of forces will highlight this much more as the reason Willie is unhappy but I view it more as an effect, not the cause.
OK so in this review I barely discuss plot, I quote Socrates, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Fight Club, Kierkegard, Thoreau, Kid Cuti, Kerouac and reference It’s a Wonderful Life. Hmmm, I guess I’m kinda crazy. Well, I write these to spit out thoughts. This is what is great about literature. Some of us wrestle with the eternal questions. Literature will never answer them, the questions do not have any complete answers yet literature shows us that others have struggled with the same questions. We are not alone when we pick up a book. It’s like talking to a brilliant person who has also thought about life’s questions. Throw away your television. The average American watches 5 hours of TV a day. The average America spends 7 hours a day in front of screens, kids even more. And then we wonder why we’re unhappy? Tapping birds isn’t fulfilling. There is no app for living life people, get out there and do it or else, like Willie Lomac you will only be free in the grave.
Best of luck to us all! I warned you this wasn’t the feel good hit of the summer.

Quotes
[About the house] An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality…Even as he crosses the stage to the doorway of the house, his exhaustion is apparent. 1
I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts. –Willie 4
Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it. –Willie 4
The way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks. –Willie 6
* To suffer fifty weeks for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella…I’ve had twenty or thirty different kinds of jobs since I left home before the way, and it always turns out the same. I just realized it lately. In Nebraska when I herded cattle, and the Dakotas, and Arizona, and now in Texas. It’s why I came home now, I guess, because I realized it. This farm I work on, it’s spring there now see? And they’ve got fifteen new colts. There’s nothing more inspiring or beautiful than the sight of a mare and a new colt. And it’s spring there now, see? Texas is cool now, and it’s spring. And whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I’m not gettin’ anywhere! What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week! I’m thirty-four years old, I ought to be makin’ my future. That’s when I come running home. And now, I get here, and I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and everytime I come back here I know all I’ve done is to waste my life. –Biff 11 [the wanderers disappointment]
Sometimes I sit in my apartment – all alone. And I think of the rent I’m paying. And it’s crazy. But then, it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women. And still, goddamnit, I’m lonely. – Happy 12 [the material possession / womanizers inherent emptiness]
“-Your hair. Your hair got so gray/
-Oh, it’s been gray since you were in high school. I just stopped dying it, that’s all.
- Dye it again, will ya? I don’t want my pal looking old.
-You’re such a boy!” -Linda and Biff 39
You wait, kid, before it’s all over we’re gonna get a little place out in the country, and I’ll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens. – Willie 53
Be loving to him. Because he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor. 56
Why just everybody conquer the world? 65
No, that’s not my father. He’s just a guy. Come on, we’ll catch Biff, and, honey, we’re going to paint this town! -Happy 91 [perhaps the most tragic moment of the play, betrayal at its finest. Very possible if you live for possessions, humans are notched down a step, even your father. Shit!]
You can’t see nothing out here! They boxed in the world goddamn neighborhood! 101
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